Q: I am married to a guy with two kids, ages 8 and 9. I want to know how to "talk" to them when their mom tells them not to say what is going on at home. I don't ask anything too personal -- usually "How is school?" They aren't allowed to even tell us about events coming up -- like school trips, pictures or plays. How do I help to ease communication?
A: Unfortunately, what you describe is nothing new -- when you have parents who are polarized with two distinct points of view, information becomes power. Plus, control over the flow of information from house to house becomes all important. And who is passing on the info? The kids, because they are the ones who lives in both homes.
Mom gets mad that dad finds out something she did not necessarily want him to know, and it's the kids that get in trouble. Pretty soon, they are walking on eggshells thinking if they say anything from house to house, there will be repercussions. It's a very awkward position to put the kids in, and just plain wrong.
The truth is, when the kids go back and forth between parents' homes, privacy goes right out the window. It's simply part of the territory. Many believe you should say, "What happens in our house stays here," but that could make the kids feel as if they can't share things about their life at the other parent's home. That's half of their life they can't talk about.
What if something funny happens and they want to share it? What if there really is a problem, like abuse, and they have been prepped with a "Don't talk about what happens at our house over there." Now, the child has to weigh whose side they are on: Mom's or Dad's. Plus, if they are in trouble and need help, being afraid to talk about one parent to the other just fuels the child's anxiety.
The key here is to not retreat, but initiate a more open stream of communication between homes. Put the children first! (Ex Etiquette rule No. 1) Make it a point to be as transparent as possible so mom comes to know the rules at your home and is able to make her own judgments about the information she hears. That way if the kids offer misinformation parents can correct them with a simple, "I think you misunderstood, honey." And, then offer the proper explanation.
Finally, it's not the responsibility of an 8- and 9-year-old to keep the other home apprised of what's going on at school.
The parents should be talking to each other on a regular basis, not keeping secrets! Info about school trips, school plays and pictures should be discussed well in advance so that everyone can support these children.
Unfortunately, it seems like it's up to you start this communication ball rolling. Why? Because you wrote us. If mom or dad had written us, we would have said the same thing to them.
Jann Blackstone-Ford and her husband's ex-wife, Sharyl Jupe, authors of "Ex-Etiquette for Parents," are the founders of Bonus Families (www.bonusfamilies.com).